Gonzaga's Theatre


     Pietro di Gottardo Gonzaga (1751 - 1831), the great European theatrical designer of the 18th and 19th centuries, saw himself as an unfulfilled architect. He believed that his artistic destiny had been destroyed, his true talent never revealed. But if he preferred architecture, why did he align himself with the theatre? Its unlikely that he was influenced by his father, who was a modest professional designer. Gonzaga even admitted that his father had little authority over him.
     Gonzaga was irresistibly attracted to the theatre, but thought about acting, not designing. However, after meeting stage designer Carlo Galli Bibiena, his fate was decided. Gonzaga recalled that his association with the theatre was born in an innate fearlessness. «Because of my zeal,» he said, «I could have become a hero in chivalric times. Since I lived in the century where theatrical heroes were endowed with fame, the stage seemed the only place to achieve brilliant feats.»      For Gonzaga's predecessors, the theatre was that ideal sphere where fantasy became a reality. Gonzaga was very different; he was a rational man influenced by the Age of Enlightenment. He studied nature, wrote tracts, and considered the work of contemporary theatrical designers useless and even disgraceful. He revised and updated the existing rules of theatre design, affirming that artists must learn to represent and reproduce real objects on the stage truthfully.
     Gonzaga's success was tied to the achievement of realism in his work. In the 1780's, he drew on a curtain at La Scala a picture of the theater's facade. Thus, the spectators were twice shown the building they gathered. For the Milanese in attendance, this realistic facade (like all of Gonzaga's scenery) seemed even more magical than the palaces that Bibiena painted. Still, this was nothing more than a new take on an old method of optical illusion beloved in Baroque art.
     Gonzaga worked in an era in which distinction was achieved through the radical aesthetic interpretation of traditional schemes and principles. Indeed, the 19th century was , in this way, unlike the 20th century, which demanded total novelty and a complete renewal of the artistic process from motifs to technique. Gonzaga's famous contemporary, Charles Louis Didelot, also worked amidst the 19th century climate of reinvention. Didelot often employed ancient myths, immersing himself in 17th and 18th century ballets in order to create a new «poetry» on the basis of this archaic material.
     Gonzaga possessed the same type of genius. His creations incorporated four artistic epoch: Baroque, Classicism, Sentimentalism and Romanticism. Rarely could Gonzaga's work be ascribed to any one particular style; rather, they were all intertwined. But like Didelot, Gonzaga was not eclectic. He was the master of a complete artistic consciousness and viewed the world in its totality. Because of this, Gonzaga's art is easily differentiated from that of his pupils and his contemporaries.
     Understanding of his grandiose and mysterious art is derived through surviving sketches and graphic designs. With rare exceptions, these are not dated or given attribution. Its also difficult to distinguish between production sketches and simple flights of fantasy, or even between sketch for a backdrop and one for curtain. Nonetheless, Gonzaga described his thoughts about the theatre and painting in several documents. While his views on the relationship of scenery to the production were not offered, he did discuss the need for conformity between the audio and visual aspects of a work. The visual aspects included both scenery and costumes. The audio aspects included not only music and intonation, but also the content of the spoken text, since all of this was heard by the audience. Gonzaga desired to unify these elements in each production.
     Gonzaga and Didelot, each with uncommon talent, lived and worked at the same time. Both found themselves in Russia and both reigned on the St.Petersburg stage. Both meditated on the fate of the theatre. But despite their similarities, their paths crossed infrequently - they even ignored each other, choosing less interesting people as helpers. Scenery for Didelot was designed by Corsini, Martynov, Kondratiev, Canoppi - but never by Gonzaga. For his part, Gonzaga worked with the commonplace choreographer Le Pique. A. Movshenson attributes this absence of collaboration to a quarrel which occurred in 1802, following Didelot's arrival in St. Petersburg. While this is plausible, it is unfortunate that two men of genius could not overcome their argumentative natures to work together.
     Yuri Slonimsky called Didelot «one of the first stage directors». It can even be said that Didelot was one of the first to realize Noverre's dream about «the close cooperation between the choreographer, the librettist, the musician, and the painter». Gonzaga, however, cherished the role of this type of director for himself. He, too, attempted to link together the components of a theatrical production. Though both of them strove for unified whole, in practice each saw himself at the head of it. Neither wanted to relinquish the director's chair to anyone else.
     Moreover, despite his tracts and treatises, Gonzaga's overpowering decor usually clashed with the production. The artist himself recognized this, writing about his first production at La Scala: «The audience burst into applause, which was repeated many times, so that during the entire First Act no one paid any attention to the other components of the performance». Sila Sandunov confirmed this: « The famous stage designer Gonzaga ...amazed the entire city with his exuberant. The first time the public saw his painted scenery they forgot about the production being presented. He made everyone admire his brush, talent and skill».
     Interestingly, Didelot's work also pushed the limits of theatrical convention. Bold, quarrelsome and brilliant, Didelot meddled passionately in all aspects of the production. As the inventors of on-stage aerial flight, Didelot, of course, took charge of the stage machinery, fighting with the technicians. Being a reformer of ballet costumes, he gave advice to the costume designers. His quarrel with Gonzaga, mentioned by Movshenson, arose from an incident in which Didelot rejected one of the painter's proposals, a drawing of a dragon for a ballet. Impudently, Didelot proceeded to make his own sketch on the same page. The choreographer could not endure competition from an artist.
     Furthermore, at Arkhangelskoye there were performances consisting only of the presentation of stage scenery, one view following another. Clearly, too much dramatic emphasis was placed on Gonzaga's scenery for it to be used as a background for Didelot's ballets. Gonzaga's sets were in themselves full theater productions, exceeding their needed theatrical power and forcing spectators to hold their breath while absorbing the technical feats. Gonzaga was the last heir to the centuries-old tradition- born in ancient Rome and popularized by Servandoni - of illusionistic stage painting.
by Inna Sklyarevskaya
This article first appeared in «Sovietsky Balet», issue No.5, 1989

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